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SF Ethics Commission says ‘Time’s Up’ on delayed whistleblower law

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Ethics Commissioner Paul Renne, pictured back right during a 2016 meeting, said the commission could put long-delayed changes to San Francisco’s whistleblower law on the ballot if no action is taken in January. (Mike Koozmin/2016 S.F. Examiner)

Time’s Up! The clock is ticking faster on sexual harassment and discrimination in nearly every arena: politics, media, entertainment — and from Sacramento to Washington.

Everywhere but San Francisco.

After nearly three years of rewriting and tweaking our city’s law protecting whistleblowers, including those who report sexual harassment and discrimination, we are no closer to action. The City’s law dates more than 25 years, intending to allow city workers to “blow the whistle” on wrongdoing in the workplace, which includes stealing, misuse of city resources, rigged bids and favoritism, as well as discrimination and sexual harassment. Despite the promise of protection against retaliation for blowing the whistle, no claim of retaliation has been deemed to be valid through The City’s process.

Some $8 million dollars has been paid out in claims by city workers or to defend city officials in sexual harassment and discrimination cases in the past 10 years, and costs mount every year. In more than half of the cases, the official named in court filings is still on the payroll, according to an informal audit of court and city records that has yet to be published. The 29 lawsuits account for only a portion of actual cases since tracking doesn’t include complaints that didn’t reach the courts.

SEE RELATED: SF to settle with police whistleblower over alleged retaliation for $100K

One case that did reach the courts was the Equal Employment Opportunity officer who brought forward the harassment of a Department of Public Works employee by her boss, who would lock the doors and begin assaulting the employee. When the EEO officer brought forward the complaint, the supervisor was allowed to retire but with reinstatement rights in another agency.

When the EEO officer complained that this was unacceptable, she was fired in retaliation. Her lawsuit was settled for $104,000 and noted her own supervisor, then-Deputy DPW Director Mohammed Nuru, received approval from his supervisor, then-Chief Administrative Officer Ed Lee, to fire her.

While she lost her job and received some compensation, Lee signed the settlement in his first month in the Mayor’s Office and named Nuru as the Public Works director within months. Nuru’s role in tolerating sexual harassment and silencing the official responsible for raising the issue didn’t figure in a promotion for him.

Three years ago, the Civil Grand Jury recommended changes to make the whistleblower law and protection more effective. The changes would allow cases to be filed with more city agencies, would cover city contractors who report wrongful action in city contracts and would broaden the kinds of wrongful actions that fall under the law.

Two years ago, the Ethics Commission endorsed changes based on the jury’s findings and forwarded them to the Board of Supervisors. Board President London Breed asked to be the sponsor, but in the nearly two years has yet to hold a public hearing or act. In October, Breed had to file for an extension since it had languished without action for so long.

The excuse is that city agencies had to weigh in and have been doing so for two years. It’s a bureaucratic game of pass-the-buck with no deadline for action from one agency to another. Nor has the Commission on the Status of Women reported a hearing on city workplace sexual harassment and discrimination, although it provides statistical updates on reports from the United Nations and national organizations.

Now, there is additional delay lasting months more for a “meet and confer” with city bargaining units. It’s taken three months just to set a date for the first meeting. Ethics commissioners were told that the appropriate officials at other agencies haven’t been available to take calls or meetings. When, if ever, it will be heard at the board and given a vote is anyone’s guess.

The only pressure for action is coming from the Ethics Commission. Acting under its authority to put measures directly on the ballot, the commission now is prepared to do exactly that to end the delays.

Time’s Up, indeed.

“I think it’s very, very important,” said Commissioner Paul Renne, “and I would urge that, if we can’t get some resolution in January, we look at putting the version that we sent to the Board, without some of the amendments they made in committee that weakened it, and put it to the voters.”

“I think that is something we will do because, otherwise, it will be dead in the water,” agreed Commission President Peter Keane.

Those interested should attend the Jan. 19 Ethics Commission meeting at City Hall at 2 p.m. or write to the Ethics Commission.

Larry Bush is a founder of Friends of Ethics.

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